by David Lore

Twenty months ago, scientists announced the mapping of the human genome, an achievement heralded as one of the greatest in science.

Now comes the hangover from this supernova of optimism.

The Council for Responsible Genetics this month called for a moratorium on gene-therapy experimentation because of the death of an 18-year-old Pennsylvania patient three years ago and the recent case of a 3-year-old French toddler who developed leukemia after treatment. "Biological characteristics or traits usually depend on interactions among many genes, and more importantly, the activity of genes is affected by various processes that occur both inside the organism and in its surroundings," said the council. "This means that scientists cannot predict the full effect that any gene modification will have on the traits of people or other organisms."

A governmental advisory committee last week came out against such a moratorium, but it's clear that concerns are growing. There's nothing inevitable about gene therapy or other aspects of the so-called gene revolution, said Philip Bereano, a council board member, during a forum on designer genes earlier this month at COSI Columbus. 

"There is no (one) future," he said. "The future depends on public and private choices." 

Gene therapy ranks low in terms of public-health needs, but is being pushed by profit motivations and the ambition of top scientists to win a Nobel Prize, said Bereano, a professor of engineering technology at the University of Washington. Bioethicist Erik Juengst from Case Western Reserve University, the other
member of the panel, thinks both gene testing and gene therapy have been oversold to desperate patients and their families.

"There's not a great track record yet on gene therapy," he said. "It's turned out to be more complicated than once thought." Juengst wishes that people would stop looking at genetic testing as a
crystal ball. 

"These tests are more like a TV weather map, a forecasting tool we don't put a lot of stock in. It's not the future, it's just information we can use or not use." 

But don't look for genetic testing to go away, he said, despite concerns about genetic discrimination by insurance companies or employers.

"These tests will come along because the people who can pay for them will do so," he said.

David Lore is science reporter for The Dispatch.

Printed in the Columbus Dispatch, 15 October 2002

(c) Columbus Dispatch

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